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Events in Tunisia, January 12

The regime is clinging on and making some minor concessions which are probably far too late. The security crackdown is obviously placing huge demands on the police and military. In a trial of strength, can the protesters stretch them to breaking point? Maybe the endgame is approaching but the big question is how it can be brought to a conclusion.

A brief summary of reported events in Tunisia on Wednesday:

  • Interior minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, dismissed; replaced by Ahmed Fria, former communications minister.

  • Prime minister announces release [not confirmed] of all those arrested during recent events except those involved in looting and burning.

  • President sets up committee of inquiry into abuses during recent events, plus a second committee to look into corruption (!) and mistakes by some officials. 

  • Both houses of parliament to meet Thursday to discuss (surely, "approve") president's decisions.

  • Stock market falls again.

  • Massive demonstration in Sfax, followed by tear gas.

  • Hatem Bettahar, assistant professor (said to be a French citizen) shot dead – apparently by a government sniper in Douz.

  • Protests in Hammamet (important tourist destination). One or more dead; police station burned.

  • Ruling party headquarters in Dar Chaabane (Nabeul) on fire

  • Army increasingly visible on the streets of Tunis and other cities.

  • President Ben Ali should have created 810 new jobs by now, in line with Monday's promise of an extra 300,000 jobs over two years.

  • Hamma Hammami, Communist Party spokesman, arrested.

  • Former political prisoner Lamari Ahmed arrested.

  • Abdelwahhab Maatar, lawyer for rapper El Général, reportedly arrested.

  • Headquarters of ruling party in Sfax said to be on fire.

  • Curfew declared in Tunis and suburbs from 8pm tonight until 5.30am tomorrow. Air France/KLM cancel late-night flight from Paris to Tunis.

  • Some of presidential family reportedly arrive in Canada.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 Jan 2011. Comment.

Today's events in Tunisia

A brief summary of reported events in Tunisia on Tuesday:

  • Latest videos: Police attack demonstrators outside union building in Sfax; early morning incident in the centre of Bizerte; protest in Ben Guerdane.

  • Tunisian stock market falls again, to lowest since last May.

  • Biggest trade union, UGTT, calls for general strike; date to be confirmed.

  • Several pictures on internet of police armed with Steyr AUG guns (made in Austria).

  • Continuing reports of a heavy death toll in Kasserine. As many as 50, according to some sources.

  • Several reports on Twitter of undercover regime supporters looting and being filmed by police – presumably to discredit protesters.

  • Heavy police presence in Tunis. Shops, etc, closed in Avenue Bourguiba. Group of lawyers beaten up while preparing to hold a peaceful protest. Ditto, a group of 100 actors, musicians and artists trying to do a flashmob.

  • Rumours of a curfew in Tunis from 7pm tonight.

  • Facebook access reportedly returns after a five-hour break.

  • Police visit cafes in Tunis suburbs, ordering owners not to show al-Jazeera on the TV.

  • Radio Kalima journalist Nizar Ben Hassen arrested at his home in Chebba.

  • There is some speculation on Twitter about the role of the Tunisian military, with suggestions that the army, or at least sections of it, is refusing to take part in the repression. (I have no idea whether that is true or not.)

Outside Tunisia:

  • Quote from Vincent Geisser, author of "Dictateurs en sursis", in the French newspaper, Libération: "The White House is well aware today that the Ben Ali regime is finished. The Americans are seeking second or third man, capable of succeeding him. The United States would not necessarily be opposed to an 'orange revolution' in Tunisia. It is precisely for this scenario from the State Department is working."

  • Statement from William Hague, Britain's Foreign Secretary: "I condemn the violence in Tunisia and the deaths of protestors and regret today’s announcement of the closure of all national schools and universities across the country. I call on the Tunisian authorities to take steps to resolve this situation peacefully and without further violence with a commitment to respect the right to peaceful protest. I also call on the authorities to provide due and transparent process to those who have been detained."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 Jan 2011. Comment.

Tunisia: the brink of revolution

The Tunisian regime was fighting for survival yesterday. Reports and videos of clashes between police and demonstrators circulated on the internet throughout the day – so many that it became difficult to keep track. In some of them civilians were shot and killed – though at this stage it is impossible to even guess at the numbers.

Perhaps most telling were the scenes, reminiscent of the fall of Saddam Hussein, where pictures of President Ben Ali were openly destroyed in the streets (two examples here and here).

The EU issued a statement echoing that of the United States, calling for "restraint in the use of force and for the respect of fundamental freedoms", as did the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

At 4pm local time, Ben Ali appeared on television and on this occasion his speech was not interrupted by a telephone call. It's a  subjective assessment, but I felt from his demeanour that he looked more than a little rattled. Unlike his speech two weeks ago, where he was seated presidentially behind a gigantic desk, this time he decided to stand – as if ready to dash out of room at a moment's notice.

He began with some familiar bluster, deriding (and insulting) the thousands of protesters by blaming "hostile elements in the pay of foreigners, who have sold their souls to extremism and terrorism, manipulated from outside the country". This was so obviously untrue that, from then on, most of his audience probably stopped listening.

He followed this up with an implausible-sounding promise to create 300,000 new jobs within two years, and to hold a "national conference" next month (which nobody apart from the regime's most diehard supporters is likely to attend).

Clutching weakly for other things to offer, he announced "a new impetus to regional newspapers devoting space daily to all governorates of the country" and said the "people's representatives" would be asked to "intensify their periodic contacts with citizens".

He ended, very oddly, by thanking his "dear brother", Colonel Gadafy, for support and appeared to suggest that anyone who is unhappy with life in Tunisia should go to Libya. The situation must be truly dire if the only world leader you can publicly thank for support is Gadafy.

Following his speech, in which Ben Ali also lectured Tunisians on the importance the regime attaches to education, the education ministry demonstrated the regime's commitment by announcing that schools and universities would be closed until further notice.

Reports on Twitter overnight say access to Facebook within Tunisia has now been blocked in its entirety. Previously the regime had been blocking individual Facebook pages. If true, this is another blunder. Not only will it stir up further anger among Tunisia's youth; it will also be seen as a direct snub to the US, the EU and the UN, who have all made a specific point about the need for free expression.

Maybe the next step is martial law but, as of yesterday, all the signs point to the regime losing control. More civilian deaths mean more funerals, and more funerals mean more protests. And keeping kids out of school, without even Facebook to keep them occupied, is also a recipe for trouble.

Maybe Ben Ali will continue urging his security forces to redouble their efforts, but cooler heads in the police and army ought to be telling him (if they are not doing so already) that there is now only one action that can quell the riots: the departure of Ben Ali himself.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 Jan 2011. Comment.

Ben Ali's speech

Full text of President Ben Ali's speech this afternoon:

Citizens, citizens,

I am addressing you today, inside and outside the country, following disturbances and acts of violence and degradation that have targeted public and private property in some villages and towns, located in several inland regions.

Violent incidents, sometimes bloody, which have killed civilians and caused injuries to several officers of the security forces, have been perpetrated by hooded gangs who have attacked during the night, to public institutions and even assaulted citizens at home, in a terrorist act that cannot be tolerated.

Incidents [were] committed at the instigation of parties who have not hesitated to engage our children among the students and unemployed youth. These parties, which incite violence and going out into the street, spreading hollow slogans of despair and fabricating, from scratch, misleading and erroneous information, have dishonestly exploited an incident that we all regret and a state of understandable despondency occurring in Sidi Bouzid, for two weeks.

Just as we express our regret for the deaths and damage generated by these incidents, just as we reiterate our sympathy to the address of the families of the deceased, may God have mercy on their souls, and the injured, we share their pain and sadness, we give them our sympathy and we reaffirm our feelings of affection to all of our sons and daughters, without exception or distinction.

Justice has taken its course to clarify the conditions and the ins and outs of these incidents, to determine those responsible.

Citizens, citizens,

These incidents are the work of a small group of hostile elements who are offended by the success of Tunisia and who are are filled with resentment and grievance, because of the progress and development achieved by the country, as evidenced by the reports of institutions and international and UN organisations known for their objectivity and impartiality.

These ill-intentioned elements have used the issue of unemployment, exploiting an isolated act of desperation, as happens in all societies and in many situations.

Hostile elements in the pay of foreigners, who have sold their souls to extremism and terrorism, manipulated from outside the country by parties who do not wish well to a country determined to persevere and work. 

A country that has for a resource the intelligence of its sons and daughters, over which we have always taken a gamble and we continue to do so, since we prefer to face the challenges and difficulties, strong in that of an educated and cultured people rather than to enjoy an illusory peace with a illiterate people.

Everyone knows how much effort we put into employment, the sector that we have always ranked among our top priorities. Some people know the great concern with which that we surround the graduates.

We are, as we have already said, proud of their growing number and we will work to meet the challenge it imposes on us, since our educational choices figure among the constants of our political and civilisational project, that the compulsory and free nature of education is one of the inviolable principles, despite the social and economic costs they entail, and that the spreading of academic institutions across the country, without exception, is a reality that we we use, irreversibly, to consolidate in each phase.

Our education policy, like our policies related to family, women, youth and children, as well as efforts by the state to ensure the care of the poor, preserve purchasing power and to subsidise the prices of commodities which cost the state budget, more than 1,700 million dinars a year (I say 1,700 million dinars), make us proud. 

We will spare no effort to further boost it further, despite the smallness of our financial and natural resources.

Citizens, citizens,

Our agenda for the coming stage and twelfth Development Plan and the specific programme for the development of inland areas, and bordering the Sahara, decided prior to these events, in addition to all the additional programmes established, aimed at solving the problem of unemployment continues to reinforce our efforts to achieve equitable and balanced development between the categories and regions, ensuring employment and income sources, to give priority to children from needy families and to stop in favour of graduates the appropriate programmes.

All these policies and all these programmes are commensurate with the policies adopted in different countries, which all suffer from unemployment, a phenomenon not specific to Tunisia and Tunisia is not the most affected by the matter. It remains only to those who seek to mislead to exploit these desperate cases, to serve the purposes of the parties to resort to hateful and hostile satellite channels.

Citizens, citizens,

To those who are deliberately harm the interests of the country, abuse the credulity of our youth and that of our daughters and sons in schools and colleges or incite unrest and agitation, we say, quite clearly, that the law will have the last word. Yes, the law will have the last word.

We continue to be attentive to the concerns of all. We are working to address the collective and individual situations and strengthen our programmes in employment and the fight against unemployment, without compromising our efforts towards improving the level and quality of life or question the prosecution of higher wages, without interrupting a round of negotiations to another.

We decide that:

First: double the capacity of employment, create revenue streams, diversify and strengthen the areas in all specialties over the years 2011 and 2012 through a major extra effort from the state and public sector by the combined efforts of the private sector, banking, and international cooperation of all parties concerned. This is for the hiring of more unemployed than other university graduates among the unemployed in all categories and all regions.

This effort will also reduce by the end of 2012 (Yes, before the end of 2012. I commit myself), all university graduates whose duration of unemployment has exceeded two years. The total capacity of job creation during this period and will reach to 300,000 new jobs.

We have, a few days ago, given the Prime Minister instructions to contact businessmen and meet the leaders of the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts to encourage them to bring their assistance in this effort by recruiting the equivalent of 4 per cent of executives of their firms among graduates, nearly 50,000 new hires in all regions. They responded positively to this call, which we thank them. We, likewise, ordered the government to assist in the implementation of this initiative and monitor.

Second: Convene a national conference to be attended by representatives of constitutional bodies, political parties, national organisations and components of civil society, a number of academics and skills of various sectors, as well as representatives of the regions set out their views and propose approaches to even further boost employment and initiative in order to meet job demand expected over the coming years. This conference will take place next month.

Thirdly, a new impetus to regional newspapers devoting space daily to all governorates of the country on television and radio, while strengthening the network of regional radio and print media presence in the regions and by consolidating units of audiovisual production in order to strengthen this qualitative change. This in order to multiply the spaces of expression of concerns and expectations of citizens and be in tune with reality in the regions.

Fourth: Ask the people's representatives, members of the House of Councillors and the central bodies of political parties to increase their presence in their regions and to intensify their periodic contacts with citizens to listen, to deal with cases which they would be seized and refer to the relevant authorities that it be remedied and that their solutions are made.

In this same context, we call again the administrators at the regional and local levels to improve the channels of contacts with people, to listen to their concerns, to meet the conditions of management of problems and overcome obstacles that may arise, and in cooperation with various organizations and associations concerned network.

Fifthly, in addition to future efforts to promote employment, we hereby hold harmless, over a period of ten years, any new job-generating project, launched in areas of internal development and whose ratios over 10 pc of income tax and employers' contributions to social security coverage.

We urge parents and all citizens to protect their children from these agitators and these criminals to take better care of themselves and aware of the risks to be instrumented and operated by such extremist groups.

I take this opportunity to reiterate my thanks and my appreciation to my dear Brother Leader Muammar Gaddafi, Leader of the Libyan revolution, for his honourable initiative that our people have received with great satisfaction and of facilitating the movement and activities of Tunisian Libya sister and treat them just like the Libyans. This confirms a sincere brotherhood and the strong support we have always received from him and to the brotherly Libyan people.

Citizens, citizens,

These incidents will never break down our determination nor undermine our achievements. Rather, they should encourage all parties to draw the necessary lessons and never detract from the imperative to continue our work with determination and enthusiasm because the dignity and invulnerability of Tunisia are a burden which are invested all Tunisian men and women.

Thank you for your attention.

[This is a Google-assisted translation of the French version posted on the Tunisie7 website.]

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 Jan 2011. Comment.

Mis-reporting Tunisia

The Tunisian uprising is beginning to get more coverage in the English-language media, so this may be a suitable moment to look at the sort of coverage it is getting. 

Considering the horrific violence meted out by the police over the weekend, the Ben Ali regime is being given an extraordinarily easy ride.

The Chicago Tribune, along with numerous other papers, carries a report from the Associated Press which refers to "rioting to protest joblessness and other social ills". 

Apart from a reference to "mobs" attacking an office of the ruling party, there is no indication that this "unrest" (as AP puts it) might have a wider political context beyond "unemployment and social ills" – not even a single line about the repressive nature of the Ben Ali regime.

From the report, you would also imagine there is nothing but rioting – no mention of the very many peaceful protests (or the authorities' way of dealing with them).

Meanwhile, the New York Times uses a Reuters report which talks of a "wave of unrest":

Protesters say they are angry about a lack of jobs, but officials say the rioting is the work of a minority of violent extremists intent on damaging Tunisia.

Once again, there is no real context about the nature of the Tunisian regime. After quoting the call from Nejib Chabbi, the opposition politician, "to spare the lives of innocent citizens and to respect their right to protest peacefully", Reuters goes to some lengths to explain the regime's position:

Officials said the police had fired only in self-defense when violent crowds attacked, ignoring warning shots. The government said in a statement that the police were "doing nothing more than carrying out their legal and legitimate mission to maintain order and guarantee the safety and liberty of citizens".

It continues:

"President Ben Ali has said the violent protests are unacceptable and could discourage investors and tourists, who provide a large part of the country’s revenues. The authorities say they had responded to the protesters’ grievances by starting a program with employers to provide jobs for 50,000 unemployed graduates.

"Tunisia has recorded strong economic growth in the past decade, but it has not been fast enough to satisfy demand for jobs. Unemployment is particularly acute among the young in the interior of the country."

In one report, the BBC talks about "protests over rising food prices and unemployment in Tunisia" and adds: "The government says those responsible are extremists intent on destabilising the country."

However, another BBC report notes:

"Demonstrations are rare in Tunisia, where there are tight controls aimed at preventing dissent. The unrest has been linked to frustrations with the president and the ruling elite."

The Independent newspaper in Britain, also using an AP report, says:

"The protests against unemployment and lack of investment have lasted nearly a month. The authorities say the rioting is the work of a minority of extremists. President Ben Ali has said the protests are unacceptable."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 Jan 2011. Comment.

Tunisia: 'at least 20 dead'

A quick update. Al-Jazeera and AFP are reporting that at least 20 people have died in the clashes in two Tunisian cities during the last 24 hours. 

Citing trade union sources, al-Jazeera says six were killed in Thala and a further 14 elsewhere in the Kasserine region.

The Tunisian Kalima website says more than 50 have died, including 22 in Kasserine, 16 in Thala, eight in Reguab, two in Meknassi and one in Feriana.

The Tunisian regime initially claimed only two people died. This later increased to five and it is now admitting to eight.

The nawaat website has posted a video which it says shows scenes in the hospital at Thala.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 Jan 2011, 18.20 GMT. Comment.

This is serious

We now have the unprecedented situation of major civil disturbances in two neighbouring Arab countries, both of them arising for similar reasons. (For the latest developments, see below.)

On its own, the trouble in Algeria might not be a particular cause for concern (or celebration, depending on how you look at it). Algeria, after all, has witnessed plenty of violent strife in the past and I wouldn't yet go so far as to characterise the events there (unlike those in Tunisia) as a popular uprising against the regime. 

But with large-scale riots and demonstrations now happening simultaneously in two countries side by side, we are moving into uncharted territory. There are signs that the protests in both countries are starting to inspire and sustain those in the other – which could make them far more difficult for the authorities to quell.

It's all looking much more serious than a week ago. Anything could happen now. And maybe it will.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 Jan 2011. Comment.

Tunisian police kill protesters

The Tunisian regime has responded to American calls for restraint ... with live bullets. A number of protesters were shot dead last night – possibly 10 or more.

Most reports attribute the shootings to the police, though the army has now been deployed some areas – allegedly to protect government buildings.

The increasing use of live ammunition may be a measure of the Ben Ali regime's desperation at its inability to control the disturbances sweeping the country.

Al-Jazeera reports that in Thala (Kasserine province, near the Algerian border), four people were killed when police opened fire after first using water cannons to try to disperse a crowd throwing stones and petrol bombs. A government building had been set on fire.

The nawaat website shows some gruesome scenes from last night's events in Thala, including the picture above.

There was also trouble yesterday in the city of Kasserine. Reports on the internet named four people as having been killed there: Mounir Mbarki, Raouf Bouzidi, Saleh Fridhi and Mohamed Asswadi. According to AFP, a 12-year-old child died in Kasserine when shot in the head.

In Meknassy (Sidi Bouzid province), two people – Chihab Alibi and Youssef Fitouri – were shot dead, according to a note posted on Twitter.

Tunisia's main trade union, the UGTT (which is normally regarded as close to the government) now appears to have swung its weight behind the protesters. 

Surrounded by riot police, several hundred of its members observed a minute's silence in the capital yesterday. In remarks quoted by AFP, the union's deputy general secretary, Abid Brigui, said: 

"We support the demands of the people in Sidi Bouzid and interior regions ... The UGTT cannot but be with this region, behind those in need and demanding jobs.

"It is against nature to condemn this movement, it is not normal to respond with bullets."

AFP quotes an opposition economist as saying that by doing this the UGTT is "making a great about-turn".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 Jan 2011. Comment.

Algerian disturbances spread

Two protesters have died in the Algerian riots, according to the interior minister. As in Tunisia, the disturbances (which started in Algiers) have become widespread. Unrest has been reported in Skikda, Sale, Constantine, Batna, Bordj Bou Arreridj, Tebessa, Guelma and Annaba, the BBC says. It continues: 

"Clashes also erupted for the first time on Friday in Annaba, about 550km (350 miles) east of the capital, and Tizi Ouzou, the main city of Kabylia province. There was also fresh violence in the second city of Oran ... On Saturday, youths resumed their protests in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, also in Kabylia province, and in Constantine."

Al-Jazeera adds

"In Annaba ... rioting broke out after Friday prayers in a poor neighbourhood of the city and continued late into the night. A local government office was ransacked, according to witnesses.

"Protesters also cut down electricity poles during the night, cutting off power to the working class suburb of Auzas.

"In Tizi Ouzou, the capital of the eastern Kabylie region, residents said rioting had spread from the city centre to the outskirts, and demonstrators burning tyres blocked the main road to Algiers."

As in Tunisia, the initial trigger for the protests was economic – high prices and unemployment – but there is also more generalised discontent directed at the regime.

"The government simply ignored the people since they were elected to office and basically now they [the people] have come out into the streets asking the authorities to give them jobs and to share the wealth of the nation," Mohamed Ben Madani, London-based editor of The Maghreb Review told al-Jazeera. 

He described the situation as "out of control" and said the protests could continue for weeks.

"I'm afraid the authorities will more [likely] crack down on those who are protesting against them rather than giving them what they are asking for," he continued. "The minister this afternoon labelled them as 'criminals'."

Meanwhile, a former Algerian diplomat, Mohamed Zitout, a told al-Jazeera: 

"It is a revolt, and probably a revolution, of an oppressed people who have, for 50 years, been waiting for housing, employment, and a proper and decent life in a very rich country.

"But unfortunately it is ruled by a very rich elite that does not care about what is happening in the country - because they did not give people what they want, even though the government has the means to do so, the people are now revolting."

The Algerian authorities have cancelled this weekend's football matches in an effort to reduce the risk of trouble and Friday sermons appealed for calm (presumably at the government's behest).

According to official media, a meeting of government ministers on Saturday agreed to a package of measures that includes reducing the price of sugar and cooking oil by 41%.

There is a lengthy discussion of the Algerian riots, and politicians' response to them, on the Moor Next Door blog.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 Jan 2011. Comment.

Tunisia: the US speaks

Yesterday – day 22 of the Tunisian uprising – the US State Department made its first public comment on events in Tunisia and neighbouring Algeria. A senior official said:

We’re certainly watching what’s happening both in Tunisia and Algeria with a great deal of interest. We did call in the Tunisian ambassador yesterday and expressed our concern about both what is happening with regard to the demonstrations and encouraged the Tunisian Government to ensure that civil liberties are protected, including the freedom to peacefully assemble.

We also raised the issue of Tunisian – what looks like Tunisian Government interference with the internet, most notably Facebook accounts. Frankly speaking, we’re quite concerned about this and we’re looking at the best and most effective way to respond and to get the result we want.

In Algeria – this is something I actually watched with a great deal of personal interest having served there as ambassador for three years – it’s frankly too soon to tell exactly what is happening here. There have been, as you are well aware, price increases as well as an acute housing shortage, which have not been well-managed by the government. And as a result, people are taking to the streets. We understand that there was some additional demonstration and rioting today. We don’t know the extent of it. But we’re also looking there about what’s the most effective and immediate thing to say and do.

Regarding the summoning of the Tunisian ambassador, a spokesman said the State Department had raised "concerns about the ability of the people of Tunisia to exercise their rights and freedom of expression and freedom of assembly." It had also urged "restraint on all sides".

Many people will no doubt be relieved that the US has finally spoken. But, as I have argued here before, the Obama Administration has to be careful. Strong American support for the protesters could by used by the regime to discredit them.

However, there are other things that outsiders might do to put pressure on the regime. Tunisia's economy depends heavily on tourism – it's a popular holiday destination for Europeans. A non-governmental boycott campaign focusing on tourism would be a good start.

In Tunisia itself, the authorities have made a serious public relations blunder by arresting Hamada Ben-Amor ("The General"), a well-known rapper, who had released a song entitled "President, your people are dying". Around 30 plainclothes police turned up at his house on Thursday night to take the 22-year-old singer away.

This generated more than 60 news stories in the world's media about his arrest (many of which also went on to talk more generally about the uprising). The result was exactly what the authorities have been seeking to avoid – far more international attention directed towards Tunisia than on any single day since the trouble began.

Several bloggers are also reported to have been arrested.

Public demonstrations around the country appear to have intensified yesterday – not entirely surprising, since it was a Friday (the Muslim weekend). The Los Angeles Times has a fairly detailed summary of recent events, compiled from Beirut. There is still virtually no reporting on the ground by journalists in Tunisia; a reporter from Le Monde was refused entry yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Anonymous News Network has issued a video filmed secretly from inside a car. It is said to show a military convoy heading into Thala (western Tunisia) as police buses move out. A tank can be clearly seen on the back of one of the trucks. 

The implication behind this is that the military could be taking over from the police in some areas. However, there was also a claim on Twitter yesterday (and consequently difficult to verify) that the army chief, Rachid Ammar, was refusing to let the military be used in suppressing the uprising.

AFP and al-Jazeera have reports on the riots in Algeria. There are some parallels with Tunisia – the rioters are protesting against high prices and unemployment – though whether the disturbances will continue and spread, as they did in Tunisia, remains to be seen.

Below: another of The General's songs.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 Jan 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 10 January: Hamada Ben-Amor's family stated that he was released after three days.

Tunisia and the Arab house of cards

It is three weeks today since Mohamed Bouazizi lit the flame in Tunisia. How are we to regard the events since then? How should we characterise them?

Writing for the Guardian last week, I used the word "uprising", though I can't say I gave it a lot of thought at the time. Based on what I knew then, "uprising" seemed the obvious choice – and it still does if you need to boil it all down to a single word. 

Yesterday, writing for Le Temps, French journalist Christophe Ayad gave a slightly longer description: "Pas encore une révolution, mais plus qu’une révolte" (Not yet a revolution but more than a revolt.) That, too, seems a fair summary.

But note the "not yet" bit. What we are seeing now may not be a revolution in itself, but its precursor. Personally, I do think a revolution of sorts is coming and will be surprised if the Ben Ali regime is still in place two or three years hence – for the simple reason that it's incapable of adapting. The protesters' grievances cannot be addressed in any meaningful way while it remains in power, and the clear message from the Tunisian people is that they have had enough.

This may seem a difficult point for the world outside to grasp – especially the Americans. How do the events in Tunisia mesh with the "forward strategy of freedom" (militarised and heavily overlaid with international politics) that George Bush used to talk about? They don't – and that's their beauty.

Also, Tunisia isn't a case of Tsvangirai versus Mugabe, Yushchenko versus Yanukovych or Ouattara versus Gbagbo. Organised political parties are irrelevant here, as they are these days in most of the Arab world. Nor is there a charismatic figure that the media can easily latch on to, like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or Lech Walesa in the Polish shipyards. In that respect, Tunisia 2011 looks more like Paris 1968, with a random assortment of students and trade unionists in the vanguard plus – to bring it up right to date – a collection of Twitterers, Facebook users and tech-savvy cyber warriors.

Will it be suppressed like Paris 1968? Somehow, I doubt it. For one thing, the protests are more widespread and the grievances more deeply felt. Others are less sanguine about that. On the Arabist blog, Issandr El Amrani suggests Ben Ali is unlikely to be dislodged without a strong diplomatic push from the EU, and he quotes several articles that are considerably more sceptical than I am.

But let's turn now to another description. Writing in Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch talks of "Obama's Arab Spring" (with a carefully-placed question mark after it) and links the developments in Tunisia to others in Jordan, Kuwait and Egypt. (We might also include Algeria where there are reports of Tunisian-style disturbances too.)

Why Obama has to be brought into it, I haven't the faintest idea. The Tunisian protesters aren't doing it for Obama's sake and as far as I'm concerned the longer he keeps his nose out, the better. American support at this stage is more likely to hinder than help, though I wouldn't object to a final nudge from the White House when Ben Ali is on the brink of toppling.

But, setting Obama aside, consider the idea of an Arab Spring. The sentiments and long pent-up frustrations expressed by Tunisians during the last three weeks are shared, to a very large extent, by Arabs throughout the Middle East. They complain endlessly amongst themselves – and yet they feel there is little, if anything, they can do about it.

The Tunisian uprising is beginning to change that. It is giving Arabs a glimpse of possibilities that were unimaginable just a month ago. It is profoundly empowering and its psychological effects are not to be underestimated. It is the opposite of the gloom that settled over the Arab world from 1967 onwards and may prove to be no less important.

Could this mean that we are about to see the crumbling of Arab regimes, one after another, as happened in Eastern Europe? In the short term, probably not. But suppose – and this is by no means an implausible scenario – that as resistance in Tunisia continues the regime's support gradually ebbs away, until eventually Ben Ali's position becomes untenable. Elections follow and the country emerges as a sort of East European style democracy (or better, Latin American style): far from ideal, but something that can be built upon.

That would be significant for the whole region: regime change of the home-grown variety, not imposed from outside in the way that Iraq was, or from above to give an existing regime the appearance of legitimacy. It would be something unique in the Arab Middle East: democracy by popular demand.

But could it be replicated in other Arab countries? That is a more difficult question. To a greater or lesser degree, all the Arab regimes present similar problems: a lack of legitimacy, a lack of accountability and transparency, corruption, authoritarianism and elderly leaders (for the most part) governing a frustrated, youthful population.

Some of the regimes, though, are more resilient than others. While it's tempting to suggest that Egypt could be next – the Mubarak era is plainly coming to an end – the regime itself, unpopular though it is, does have an extensive patronage base that may be enough to keep it in power for some years yet. And the same could be said of several other countries.

The Tunisian regime, on the other hand, looks especially vulnerable because it has relied so heavily on fear and repression as mechanisms for control. Other Arab regimes do that too, but they also have more subtle and diverse weapons in their armoury. Once the fear barrier is broken in Tunisia though (as seems to be happening), there is little left to protect Ben Ali.

So, I don't expect Tunisia alone to bring down the entire Arab house of cards. What it will do is intensify the pressure for change that exists already in other countries and encourage people to look to themselves, rather than outside, for solutions. It will also help dispel the idea that the long-surviving regimes we see in place today are permanent fixtures. They are not, and one day they will be history.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 Jan 2011. Comment.

Tunisia: the battle for free speech

Where freedom of speech is not allowed, people still find ways to express their message. Students at an engineering institute in Tunis arranged themselves to spell out the words "tunus hurra" (Free Tunisia) on Monday. Schools and colleges in the capital had been surrounded by security forces to prevent students from demonstrating on the streets.

The Associated Press reports two days of clashes in Thala (western Tunisia, near the Algerian border):

As classes resumed after winter vacation Monday, hundreds of high school students and other protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas, said a union official who was present. The man spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing problems in a country where the media is heavily controlled by the state.

Amid the clashes, demonstrators set fire to tires and to the local ruling party headquarters on Monday, the official said. The unrest continued on Tuesday. Several people were arrested, and others were hospitalized with injuries, the union official said. The protests shuttered local schools.

France's LCI television broadcast video of Thala that showed packs of shouting young men roaming the streets and clouds of smoke in the air.

Al-Jazeera has a round-up of recent events here. It has also set up a special web page headed "Trouble in Tunisia" which compiles all its recent recent reports, along with an interactive map showing where the protests are occurring.

The nawaat blog continues to provide videos and reports of each day's events, and crowdvoice.org is compiling articles from a variety of sources.

The Reporters Without Borders website has good overview of the Tunisian government's intensified efforts to censor the internet. It says:

"Sensitive social and political topics were already heavily censored on the Internet but the authorities, who are clearly disturbed by this wave of unrest, have responded by trying to impose even tighter and faster controls over the online flow of information about it.

"However, in the internet era, it is becoming impossible to prevent coverage of events of this scale and censorship has perverse effects. All sorts of rumours circulate in the absence of reliable information. We urge the authorities to back off and to stop filtering websites and stop intimidating netizens and bloggers."

TUNISIAN JOKE doing the rounds on Twitter:

Q. How do you say "Imelda Marcos" in Arabic?

A. "Leila Trabelsi".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 Jan 2011. Comment.

Cyber war breaks out in Tunisia

As the Tunisian uprising continues on the ground with no sign of abating, the battle over information is intensifying on the internet.

Yesterday there were numerous reports of Tunisians' Facebook pages and email accounts being hacked – presumably by the regime – with Yahoo users apparently the most vulnerable.

The nawaat website responded with technical guidance for protecting against attacks. The Tunisian Pirate Party was also reported to be distributing USB sticks containing Tor (anonymity software) to students.

The Tunisian government is regarded as a world leader in the field of internet censorship and it could easily block access to the whole of Facebook if it chose to do so. However, it seems to have recognised that this would be extremely unpopular and could further inflame the protests – so it has opted for targeting individuals who oppose the regime.

The authorities also routinely block access to anything remotely critical which appears on websites outside the country. According to a Twitter user, this article was blocked within 10 minutes of appearing on a Swiss website.

Parallel with the government's assault on internet users, the group known as Anonymous has been attacking government-related websites (as reported here yesterday). Al-Jazeera has more details.

When checked this morning, the following websites were still unavailable:

www.bmvt.com.tn (Tunisian Stock Exchange)

www.sicad.gov.tn  (Tunisian Foreign Relations)

www.industrie.gov.tn (Ministry of Industry)

www.commerce.gov.tn  (Tunisian Government Commerce)

www.carthage.tn (The Carthage Palace – presidential website)

benali.tn (Presidential elections site)

www.ministeres.tn (Tunisian government site listing various ministries)

Al-Jazeera appears to be the only major news organisation trying to cover the uprising on a day-to-day basis and, predictably, it has come under fire from the Tunisian regime and its supporters. The accusations of "unprofessionalism" and using "unreliable" (ie non-governmental) sources are a bit rich considering that the authorities are doing their utmost to prevent it from reporting. It is having to make extensive use of amateur videos and social networking websites in order to get information.

Twitter users reported demonstrations in several Tunsian cities yesterday, though details are scarce. The nawaat website posted videos of two student protests, one at the Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l'Information and the other at Gronbalya Lycée. It also reports a hunger strike by trade unionists in Redeyef.

Lawyers have reportedly called a strike for Thursday, January 6.

The Egyptian foreign minister arrived in Tunisia yesterday for two days of discussions on "key issues of mutual interest". The Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also began an official visit.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 Jan 2011. Comment.

Death of Tunisian protester

Mohamed Bouazizi, the jobless young man who set fire to himself in Tunisia last month triggering a wave of anti-government demonstrations across the country, died of his injuries last night, according to a report on the nawaat website.

Bouazizi, 26, was selling fruit and vegetables in the street to support his family when police stopped him for trading without a licence. An altercation followed in which one officer reportedly slapped him and spat at him. Bouazizi then doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.

His action, on December 17, was seen as epitomising the plight of Tunisia's unemployed – especially the young – and protests, increasingly directed against the repressive regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, have continued ever since. A general strike has been called for today.

Meanwhile, a group known simply as Anonymous claims to have launched successful cyber attacks against various websites associated with the regime, in suppport of the uprising. The Tech Herald website says:

At this point, several Tunisian government domains have been taken down completely, or have been severely crippled by the DDoS attacks. Included in the list of targets are pm.gov.tn, rcd.tn, benali.tn, carthage.tn, bvmt.com.tn, and ministeres.tn.

In addition to being knocked offline, the Prime Minister’s domain (pm.gov.tn) was defaced with a message from Anonymous ...

Most of those taking part are said to be from Tunisia. Screen grabs of the hacking are here, here and here.

Anonymous has previously attacked websites belonging to the 
Zimbabwean government and the Church of Scientology.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 Jan 2011. Comment.

NOTE: Nawaat's report of Bouazizi's death turned out to be premature – but only by one day. He died on January 4.

Saudis impose new internet rules

The Saudi ministry of culture and information has finally issued its long-threatened regulations "to protect society from erroneous practices in electronic publishing".

Along with most Arab regimes, the Saudis are nervously aware that the internet and other forms of electronic communication have opened up a huge gap in their once-solid control of public discourse, and the new rules are a belated but futile attempt to plug it. Not surprisingly, the rules also confirm that the ministry doesn't really understand electronic publishing.

Clause Two of the document defines "electronic publishing" as meaning whatever the ministry wants it to mean. It specifically includes "electronic journalism", websites of "traditional media", forums, blogs, "messages", mailing lists, chat rooms and archives, etc, but also "any other form of electronic publishing that the ministry may choose to add".

The basic aim is to extend the old (and thoroughly discredited) requirement of registration and licensing for traditional media to the new media – and this is where the ministry starts to tie itself in knots. Recognising that total control is not a practical option, it has decreed that while some types of electronic publishing will be subject to compulsory registration, for others the registration will only be  voluntary.

Compulsory registration applies to "electronic journalism", websites "displaying audio and visual material" and the "broadcasting" of "messages".

Voluntary registration applies to blogs, forums, personal websites, mailing lists, electronic archives and chat rooms.

This raises more questions than it answers, and it looks completely unworkable. At what point, for example, does a blog or personal website start to count as "electronic journalism"? Does the compulsory registration kick in if a blogger posts "audio and visual material"? And the rules about "broadcasting" of "messages" raise a whole lot of issues over the use of mobile phones.

Ahmed al-Omran (who blogs as Saudi Jeans) also considers the registration procedures:

To register, a Saudi citizen must be at least 20 years old with a high school degree or above, and if you plan to launch a so-called "electronic newspaper", the ministry must approve of your editor-in-chief, just like they do for dead tree newspapers. 

The law says the editor is held accountable for all content published on the website, but says nothing readers’ comments. Is the editor also held accountable for those?

Another worrying piece in the law says those who get permission must provide the ministry with the information of their hosting company. We can conclude from this that [the ministry] won’t simply block your website for readers inside the country, but they can also deny access to your website from anywhere by forcing the hosting company to take your site offline altogether. Scary. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 Jan 2011. Comment.

Salih: president for life?

Yemen's parliament has begun debating constitutional changes which, among other things, would allow President Salih to continue in power indefinitely.

The presidency is currently limited to two seven-year terms – meaning that Salih must leave office in 2013. Salih has already been in power in Sanaa for 32 years but previous constitutional changes have re-set the clock on the two-term limit.

The proposal this time is to remove the two-term limit altogether while reducing the length of presidential terms from seven years to five.

This has been rejected by opposition parties but, despite recent efforts to hold a "national dialogue", the ruling General People's Congress party (GPC) – which has an overwhelming majority in parliament – seems determined to steamroller it through.

The US has criticised the government's unilateralist approach, fearing that it could lead to an opposition boycott of the parliamentary elections scheduled for next April.

On Friday, a State Department spokesman said: "Previously, we consistently welcomed and supported the commitments of both the government and the opposition to address issues related to constitutional reforms and other election reforms through the National Dialogue. We continue to believe that the interests of the Yemeni people will be best served through that process of negotiations."

The GPC duly condemned this as interference in Yemen's internal affairs and an infringement of its national sovereignty. However, Yemen's dependence on international aid means that the US and other countries do have some leverage, and on Saturday parliament decided to refer the constitutional changes to a special committee which may possibly delay them until after the coming election.

An article on the GPC's website describes some of the other changes included in the proposals.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 Jan 2011. Comment.

A new twist to Tunisian protests

There are calls for a general strike in Tunisia tomorrow (Monday), according to various posts on Twitter. Meanwhile, more and more videos are appearing on the nawaat blog showing protests around the country.

I was particularly fascinated by one video showing a small but imaginative protest at an unlikely spot: Bab el-Assal metro station in the suburbs of Tunis last Tuesday. 

People can be seen on the platforms and railway lines, silently holding a hand over their mouth. A train approaches ringing its bell, but the demonstrators stand their ground and the train comes almost to a halt before they finally step aside. It's very reminiscent of that famous scene in Tiananmen Square where a lone individual challenged a Chinese tank.

The other thing to note is that it all happened without any sign of a police presence.

It seems to me that this sort of tactic could give the authorities quite a headache if adopted on a wider scale.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 Jan 2011. Comment.

Bomb attack on Egyptian church kills 21

A bomb exploded outside a church in Egypt last night. The Egyptian health ministry says at least 21 people were killed and 43 injured. The interior ministry had earlier put the death toll at seven.

Initial reports blamed a car bomb, though officials are now suggesting it was a suicide bomber.

The blast occurred during a midnight New Year service at the church of St Mark and St Peter in the Sidi Bishr district of Alexandria. The video above shows the scene in the church at the moment of the explosion.

The BBC has a video of the aftermath and the Egyptian Chronicles blog has several others, along with some photographs. Some reports say that after the explosion Christians attacked a mosque nearby.

The authorities had previously announced a tightening of security around Egypt's churches in anticipation of possible New Year attacks.

Last year, seven people were shot dead outside a church in Upper Egypt following a midnight mass to mark the Coptic Christmas. In April, an Iraqi offshoot of al-Qaeda calling itself The Islamic State of Iraq threatened to attack Christians in Egypt.

Egyptian officials have accused "foreign elements" of carrying out last night's attack. This is a common response when untoward events happen but the style of the attack does suggest it could be the work of al-Qaeda elements rather than local militants.

Sectarian tensions are common in Egypt, though the government usually tries to deny their existence or to quieten them down without addressing the underlying issues. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 Jan 2011. Comment.

Ben Ali is congratulated

The Tunisian regime seems to be clutching at straws. Yesterday, the official news agency reported that six local organisations, including the Road Traffic Association and the Professional Association of Banks, have congratulated President Ben Ali on his recent speech.

They allegedly think it "testified to an acute patriotic sense, a clear vision and a resolute commitment to forge ahead on the way of boosting comprehensive development throughout the country".

Meanwhile, Ben Ali has sacked Mourad Ben Jalloul, governor of Sidi Bouzid (the area where the disturbances first broke out). No reason was given. 

On Wednesday, the president dismissed his communications minister, Oussama Romdhani, along with two other ministers, in a government reshuffle.

Al-Jazeera yesterday reported the death of another protester. Chawki Belhoussine El Hadri, 44, died of his injuries after being shot by police in Menzel Bouzaiene on December 24.

The Nawaat website has a summary (in French) of other protest-related events yesterday, plus some videos.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 Jan 2011. Comment.

Readers' favourites

It's the start of a new month, so here are the top 10 readers' favourites from my blog during December (based on Twitter clicks):

1. Wikileaks: Where are the Israel documents? Dec 8
2. Protests spread to Tunis Dec 26 
3. Riot in Saudi Arabia Dec 18
4. Tunisian protests: Week two Dec 27
5. No answer from Ben Ali Dec 29
6. Tunisia and the media Dec 31
7. Egyptians in the Israeli army Dec 18
8. Wikileaks: Partying in Saudi Arabia Dec 8 
9. Protester shot dead in Tuisian riots Dec 25 
10. Saudi professor arrested Dec 7 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 Jan 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




January 2011

Talking to Egyptians

Lighting the fire

Egypt: a day of deadlock

Mubarak clings on as his power ebbs

Egypt in 140 characters or less

Mubarak: the exit strategy

Egypt burns

This revolution will not be tweeted?

Information lockdown in Egypt

Inshallah Twitter

Egypt: exaggeration or denial?

Egypt update, January 25

Police Day protests in Egypt

The new face of Arabic

Tunisia and Facebook

Arab dictators are good for Israel

More protests in Yemen and Algeria

Protests in Jordan

Yemeni protesters target Salih

Welcome to post-Islamism

Gaddafi versus Kleenex

Tunisia: the need for vigilance

Libya and the vanishing videos

Fate of a Tunisian tiger

Trouble in Libya

Ben Ali is no longer president

Ben Ali is still president

Tunisia: a moment in history

Tunisia: double or quits

Tunisia: the last days of Ben Ali

'Treason' claim over Clinton visit

Events in Tunisia, January 12

Today's events in Tunisia

Tunisia: the brink of revolution

Ben Ali's speech

Mis-reporting Tunisia

Tunisia: 'at least 20 dead'

This is serious

Tunisian police kill protesters

Algerian disturbances spread

Tunisia: the US speaks

Tunisia and the Arab house of cards

Tunisia: the battle for free speech

Cyber war breaks out in Tunisia

Death of Tunisian protester

Saudis impose new internet rules

Salih: president for life?

A new twist to Tunisian protests

Bomb attack on Egyptian church kills 21

Ben Ali is congratulated

Readers' favourites


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


Your comments

Readers' comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome. Contact details are here and readers' feedback is here.


What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 12 January, 2011